October 12, 2009
Birdwatching Takes “Birders” Into the Field
Watch birds in a parking lot, park, or your own back yard
by Martin Stephens
A bird watcher, as the name indicates, is someone who watches birds.
But these days, that simple label can apply to someone whose bird watching varies from an occasional backyard diversion to a person with a consuming passion.
What might be called "extreme bird-watching"—typified by frequent, arduous, and expensive trips to bird-rich parts of the planet, led by top-notch guides—was well described in a recent book, aptly entitled: To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifetime Obsession, by Dan Koeppel. In reality, most bird watchers—or "birders" as they prefer to be called—get a pair of binoculars and a field guide to birds and go to a local park from time to time to enjoy their hobby.
I fall somewhere in the middle on the birding spectrum—both in terms of my skill level and my investment in the hobby, however measured (how often I go out "into the field," whether I keep lists of my bird sightings, etc.). People like me can seem enormously talented in bird identification to a novice, yet, can come across as mediocre to the true expert. Similarly, we can seem heavily committed to the hobby by those unfamiliar with time, money, and psychic energy invested by the faithful.
Keep those binoculars handy
A few of my friends and I go birding from time to time, sometimes just to the local park for a couple of hours or sometimes to more distant places, like the Chesapeake Bay for overnight trips. And I always take my binoculars when I visit a friend who works for an ecotourism lodge in the Amazon jungle of Peru. I often keep my binoculars handy at home because you never know what birds you'll see in your own backyard.
I get a kick out of co-leading (along with HSUS colleague John Hadidian) occasional bird walks around our Gaithersburg office in the spring. It's a time when many North American birds migrate north to get ready for breeding, so it gives us the opportunity to see and hear birds who are moving through Maryland but are not necessarily going to breed here. With the advent of breeding season, many species of birds (mostly the males) develop more colorful feathering (breeding plumage) and begin singing. Both features make them easier to spot or hear.
Into the field
While I've loved working at The HSUS for the past 23 years on behalf of animals used in biomedical research and education, that niche has taken me out of "the field" and away from my earlier passion of studying animals as a zoologist. Birding has helped fill that void. At least it occasionally gets me out into the field to spot and identify birds—a challenge that I enjoy. Birds are my focal point, my window into the natural world. I can learn from them about natural history like their habitat selection, adaptation, migration, and breeding behaviors.
Why birds? Partly because they are so conspicuous. I became interested in birds as a college biology student in New York City. In that urban environment, mammals, reptiles, and other kinds of animals are few and could not be readily viewed by a budding naturalist. Other factors also played a role—it helps to be a morning person like me if you're going to be a birder.
Birding can open eyes to the sorts of issues that The HSUS regularly confronts, such as habitat loss, the wildlife trade, and the challenges to wildlife of living in an increasingly human-influenced world (e.g., window strikes, bird/cat conflicts). But mostly, it's just plain enjoyable to watch them—to celebrate animals—in all their colorful splendor and diverse habits.
Martin Stephens is the Vice President, Animal Research Issues at The HSUS
Sibley’s Birding Basics, by David Allen Sibley (Knopf, 2002)
Pete Dunne on Birdwatching: The How-to, Where-to, and When-to of Birding, by Pete Dunne (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003)
Good Birders Don’t Wear White: 50 Tips from North America’s Top Birders, by Lisa White (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007)
Kingbird Highway: The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder, by Kenn Kaufman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006)
The Birder’s Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds, by Paul Ehrlich (Fireside, 1988)